In Defense of the Short Term Missions Trip (Part 3) :: How to Arrive Prepared

Last month we found ourselves discussing short term missions teams and how they can be useful, helpful and a blessing to those on the field as well as the local community.  We are coming to the end of summer (at least in North America), which means that many people’s lives have been full of sending/receiving such groups for the past several months.

In this particular article, we’ll be discussing some of the ways teams coming on trips can prepare themselves, and arrive in a good mindset and ready to serve.

While in Brazil, I had the opportunity to interview two separate pastors leading teams–one was an American pastor, leading his team of 15 from First Free Church of Lincoln Nebraska. The other was leading  group of 14 from southern Brazil, from a church called Celivre.

I asked both of them what it looked like to prepare for a trip like this.  There was a wonderful lack of DRAMA from any during the 8 days we were together, and that says a lot being that there was a mix of ages, personalities, and nationalities too!  Not everyone was able to even communicate together, yet everyone did well to work together and accomplish the goals set forth.  How did this happen?

Robb Maddox, the Missions and outreach coordinator of First Free of Lincoln shared with me in an interview that preparation was key.  Getting to know one another before coming, having clear expectations, and preparing everyone to be flexible always helps.  One interesting element that their team did was that every participant, whether teenager or adult, wrote out a brief testimony to share.  Often times, the guests and visitors are called on in church settings to give a word, and so arriving with these already ready to go was a great idea.  Robb took it one step further too, and had each member of his team share it before they came, in their group and then with someone in their hometown as well.  So, their testimonies and verses and devotionals that were being put together for a Brazilian missions trip were also being used to share the good news and the Word in their own town.

Robb also mentioned a few important interpersonal aspects as well– he and his co-leaders try to keep an eye on the people they bring with them and see how they are feeling and reacting to things.  The key to reducing drama is to nip it in the bud before it gets started, and also to truly hear people’s hearts and needs as the week progresses.  A lot of this has to do with establishing trust and open lines of communication before they get on the plane though. Helping people have realistic expectations and making sure they know ahead of time that they might get tired, overstimulated, or just generally overwhelmed helps manage the situations in the moments when they actually come up.

Lucas, of Santa Catarina has a heart for the Brazilian church, and sees himself as a national missionary to his own people.  He loves to teach people about using their everyday skills and talents–be it jiu jitsu training or accounting, spray painting murals or cutting hair–anything can be used to draw people into a conversation about Christ.  His team was an incredible asset, and they were pretty colorful too!

A few insights from Steve Spellman, who was really the guy pulling the strings for this whole thing shared with me near the end of the week.  He commented that not everyone was involved in any one thing, but everyone was willing to serve.  Because there was a spreading out and a proper use of everyone’s gifts and talents, more ground was able to be covered.  The Brazilians were able to go into some neighborhoods that were a bit dangerous, and use jiu jitsu as a door to share the gospel.  The Americans were able to get into the public schools, simply because they were Americans (and therefore interesting) and teach English.  When the students asked direct questions about God, they were able to give direct answers and share the gospel as well.

So, what I learned from these three men and all the people they were leading boils down to a few simple concepts:

  1. Teach and practice sharing your testimony and sharing the gospel before you arrive.  If you do these things in your own hometown, then you are already doing missions before you even leave the country!
  2. Try to give your team realistic expectations, and educate them on culture as much as possible before leaving.
  3. It’s always better to have too many activities prepared rather than too little, just as long as the people on your short-term team know that they might not get to everything.
  4. Prepare everyone to BE FLEXIBLE.  Things rarely, if ever, go according to plan or stay on schedule when in a different location than your own.  If everyone comes in expecting this, there will be fewer hurt feelings and way less drama.

Do you have any other suggestions for arriving prepared to a short term missions trip?  Is there any advice that has been really helpful for you or your teams over the years?

Here is a video filmed during the week of the trip to Recife, Brazil. Enjoy!

In Defense of the Short Term Missions Trip (Part 2) :: Pick Up Your Paintbrushes Again

In the last post, we talked about the bad wrap short term mission trips have gotten in the past few years, and ways that they can be done well.

Today, I need you to follow me down to South America, to the eastern-most tip to Brazil, overlooking the Atlantic ocean.  Painting, English classes, and VBS’s are all projects that have been presented as unhelpful, sometimes even harmful in the grand sweeping statements of “the church should just get rid of short-term missions trips altogether”.  Once again, I disagree, and beg you to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Just a few short weeks ago, I was in northern Brazil, doing my normal photojournalism and filmmaking job, following Steve and Liz Spellman for the week. This trip they were on was incredibly unique and unlike any I’ve yet witnessed– it was comprised of a team from First Free of Lincoln, Nebraska (15 people), and a team from southern Brazil led by Pastor Lucas (14 people, with a few added later on), doing outreach in a Evangelical Free church (add another 20 or so people here) that had never before received an American short term team.  In the mix of it all were the Spellmans, as sort of ringmasters of this three ring circus, and I just tagged along dragging my camera bag.

There were so many interesting elements here.

The history of this particular church was very interesting, being planted 25 years ago and then kind of left to fend for itself.  Over the past few years, Steve has established relationships with several pastors in that city to encourage and disciple them, particularly the pastor we worked with during the week, named Andre. The city we were in was pretty isolated from the rest of Brazil, mostly because of distance, and had its own flavor of culture and life. Most of the Evangelical Free churches are in the southern states of Brazil, and we were pretty far north.  To give a visual comparison for the Americans reading this, it would be like church planters going from Mississippi to northern Minnesota, building a church, starting a congregation, and then going home and hoping it all works out.  Fellowship, further discipleship, and accountability are necessary for every church plant, every pastor and every congregation, regardless of their location.  The vision for the week and for the combined teams was to come alongside and encourage and to get to know the people of this church and their community.  Encouragement in whatever ways were most needed.

Another interesting element was that one of the big projects that was to be done during this particular week was the one singular thing that has gotten the worst attention on short-term missions projects EVER:  painting.  Painting needed to be done, to both the interior and exterior of the building.  A team of many of the same southern Brazilians had come up the previous year and done some work, but much more was still left to do.

Here is the testimony of the pastor of that church that turns the whole “issue” of painting on its head:

Pastor Andre said that the building they were given as a church all those years ago was simply too big for them, and they didn’t have the resources to finish it or to maintain it.  Church planters built it and they were supposed to finish it and maintain it, yet their congregation was small.  Over the years it had its struggles like any church would.  When the team of Brazilians came last year, they painted the exterior of the church, it’s first coat of paint in decades.  The effect was rather incredible.  The neighbors started to take notice of the building, and soon realized it was an actual church!  For years they had thought it was an abandoned warehouse.  They came around more, during Bible studies and community outreach days and wanted to learn more about what was going on there.  The team had also painted the interior of the church and fixed the roof so that people could sit through the service during rainy season and not have to arrange their chairs around buckets catching water. They had made it a desirable place to be, a refuge from some of the dilapidated buildings around it.  A coat of paint earned them respect in their community, and people started becoming interested in what was going on there.

This year, with the same Brazilians and the added Americans, more painting was done.  A small apartment had been added next to the church building, to house the pastor and his wife and save money on rent.  Underneath the apartment are the classrooms that were originally built with the church, and unfinished until last year.  I watched a group of men transform that space into what would be a warm and welcoming home.  It was both beautiful and humbling to know that the purpose of this project wasn’t the actual painting itself–the purpose was to encourage the pastor, to hear his heart and listen to his stories, to build relationship with him, to let him know that he and his church do not have to walk their road alone.  Sure, others could have done the work. But the fruit of it goes so much deeper than just throwing some bright colors up on a wall. THIS is what painting should look like, this is where I declare with gusto “Pick your paintbrushes back up and get to work!”

Later on in the week, smaller groups were sent out to other local churches.  Some of the Brazilians went to a church in a difficult area, and later on they went to a community center in one of the most dangerous favelas in the city.  Both times, they were able to do the same types of things–transform a neglected and ugly space into something beautiful and bright and fresh, all for the sake of building relationships.  This wasn’t the horror story you hear of useless mission trips, of orphan children dirtying the walls just so the teams feel useful when they come.  This was something asked for and welcomed, and done with far more purpose than just painting itself.

While painting was going on around the city, the American team from Nebraska was able to teach English in several local schools as well as also lead three children’s programs in different locations.  With the bigger goals in mind, much more can be accomplished.  The goals weren’t for them to just teach English, or just teach children a few new games and Bible verses.   The objective of the American team was to come alongside the local church and multiply their resources and efforts of showing the community that the church had open doors. That the church was a safe place.  Just before going in to the first school on the first day of lessons, the Americans were warned that they were not allowed to share the gospel, mention the church by name, or anything to do with God at all.  However, if they were asked specific questions, they would be permitted to answer.  In the first class that was offered, a student asked “So, what do you believe about God?” and one of the teenagers on the trip clearly laid out the gospel.  When they walked into that school, the headmaster was a bit hesitant, a bit wary of the whole situation.  By the end of two days, he had told the local pastor that he was welcome to come into that school and share whenever he’d like. THAT is a successful English class.

On the last day of the trip, all the Brazilians (southern and northern), Americans, pastors and Spellmans joined forces and headed to a nearby city to lead one last mini-VBS. By this time, our circus had swelled to upwards of 50 people and I was tempted to buy Steve a top hat and cape as the ringmaster. We were able to go to a very poor community that has a huge problem with gang-related violence and drugs.  Most people stayed put in the ministry center that supports local children with tutoring and art classes, while some of the Brazilians were able to venture right into the center of the favela and share the gospel (as well as a jiu-jitsu class…hey, they’re from Brazil!) It was a beautiful thing to see multiple nationalities coming together, working side by side, laughing and giving it all they had.  You know who the true recipients were that day, though?  Of course the children of the community received the Word, but it was the workers who we really went for.  The people who serve this community day in and day out, who love these children, who suffer alongside them and know their struggles and hurts–we went to encourage them. They so rarely receive teams, and they definitely never receive teams of 50+ from multiple countries!  They took time to share with us the history of their program, what their struggles and needs were, what the children face, what they face.  At the end of the day, they were heard. They had new friends, and two new church groups who knew their names and faces and could be praying for them in the days to come.  THAT is a successful VBS.

The key here is relationship, is communication, is asking.  Asking what the real felt needs of the church and community are.  Listening to the heart and hopes and struggles of the local churches and pastors and missionaries.  Coming with a heart that is willing to serve and learn, that has goals of friendship and prayer rather than finished projects.  If painting and building maintenance are expressed as helpful tasks, then by all means, pick up your paintbrush!  If teaching English is needed as a way to get the foot in the door of the local school, then teach English!  If a local pastor is discouraged, then encourage him! If the ministry of long-term missionaries is struggling, or even just feeling isolated, then go, see, hear, learn.  Listen, pray, use your resources wisely, plan and be flexible.

Next week, I’ll be sharing an interview with the pastors who were on this trip, talking about how to best prepare for a successful trip on the end of the goers.  A special thanks goes out to this wonderful group of people who let me follow them around for over a week and continually stick a camera in their face!

In Defense of the Short Term Missions Trip (Part 1)

In recent years, the short term mission trip has gotten a lot of bad press.  In many cases, it has been deserved, and a reassessing needed to happen in the approach.  Article after article has been written, talking about why North Americans don’t need to be flying halfway around the world to paint an orphanage again or feed hungry people or lead a VBS.  This article was written specifically for girls who fit my description–white girls with no construction or professional experience (although I WAS a truck driver in a past life, but I digress).  Chapters of books have been dedicated to all the things churches and organizations and teams have done wrong, and all the harm caused, and why the effort it useless and money wasted.  As a result, many church mission boards and long term missionaries alike have changed their approach.  Many others have thrown up their hands in frustration, not knowing a healthy way to move forward.

This is not another article bashing the short term missions trip! In fact, it’s the first in a whole series defending it.  To say that “everyone is doing everything wrong in every case” is a broad, sweeping statement that is both unfair and untrue. Many churches, mission teams, and local ministries work hard to foster healthy relationships within their own communities and  with people at home and abroad.  There is huge evidence that we should KEEP the short term trips, and not do away with them altogether, as many suggest.  Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, here. When pastors, mission boards, missionaries, and local church bodies abroad work together to discover the needs of their neighborhood, short term projects are incredible gateways to open doors.  When everyone has been prepared ahead of time, is on the same page, and has a clear understanding of the goals, then they are set up for success.

In my role covering media and communications for the Latin America/Caribbean division, I have been traveling to each of our sites where ReachGlobal has a long term team in place.  Several of these trips have coincided with short term team visits. As I go about my business of filming, interviewing, watching and listening, I get to interact with these American teams and see up close how things are being done.  In the past few months, I have seen some incredibly effective and wonderful groups!  I intend to use at least two of these teams as examples of “This is What it SHOULD Look Like”, and how teams can actually be a blessing, be catalysts, and open previously closed doors for new relationships within the community.

To begin, we need to visit the hot, humid, mountainous and beloved island of Haiti.

As a country, it is the poster child for how western aid has harmed a people, their dignity, their economy, and their spiritual growth over the past 150+ years.  So much damage has been done by well-intentioned people, that often times things just look like an impossibly tangled mess.  And yet! God is working, moving and restoring His people in every corner of the earth, including Haiti.

Our Haiti team first began in 2010 as a Crisis Response group to the earthquake.  With ReachGlobal’s Crisis Response division, their structured to receive groups for a week at a time, one after another. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, is incredibly effective, and keeps people engaged for a few years.  However, shortly into their work, the newly formed Haiti team realized there were some long-term needs in their neighborhood. Everyone unpacked their suitcases and settled in for the long haul.  After a few staff changes and adjustments, the Haiti team became comprised of the Mathis family, Jen Blevins, and Stephanie Fry.  They live and work in a rural community, with the “Haitian Queen” as the guest house where most of the action takes place.

Team Haiti still receives about 20 short term teams a year, far more than the average ReachGlobal city team.  Teams work on projects within their local community, teach VBS and English classes, and work to build relationships through sports, construction projects, and prayer walks.  When it’s just the long-termers there, the ministry takes on a different shape, in church leadership development and discipleship of local youth.

Talking with Dave and Sharron Mathis, I asked, “What do you see as a successful short term trip? What makes it helpful to you and worth the effort and expense of a North American church group coming here?”

Dave responded that, “Basically, if they’ve learned, and taken more away from Haiti than they brought, then it’s successful in my mind.  I mean that by them coming as learners, them coming to build relationships, understanding more about the culture. I think if we’re just focused on projects and what we accomplish—while those things are gratifying in some ways—we’ve missed the mark of what we like to call “being versus doing”.  Being in relationship is far more important than what you can do for someone. If people learn more by coming to Haiti than what they knew before they were here, whether it’s about missions, or about Haiti, or about God, or about themselves, then I’d say that’s a successful short term trip. Really, a short term team is an extension of what we are doing in local discipleship. It’s two-fold, because we see as much effect happening to the people who come as we do on the people in our community. They both see God in a bigger way, and perspectives get changed. Honestly, we do as much ‘mission work’ to the American church as we do to the Haitian church. That’s the way we’ve designed it; we want it to be equal parts receiving and giving on both ends.”

In the evenings, as the air cools slightly and the bugs all come out, everyone gathers under the wooden patio cover illuminated by strings of Christmas lights.  A meal is shared, a time singing in worship follows, everyone discusses their experiences of the day, and then “class” begins.  Our Haiti team has a format that they follow to educate their short term teams during the brief time they have together.  It’s important to know that teams arrive having (hopefully) done their assigned homework: reading the incredible book that has really become a staple to American churches and mission boards in the past 10 years, “When Helping Hurts”.  Nightly discussions are led by Dave or one of the ladies over the topics covered in the book, such as “What are all the different elements of poverty” and “In what ways are we poor and broken in our different cultures”, and “what are the differences between relief and development”.

Dave also shared, “We teach people about the history of Haiti, and have them understand the context in a better way. We also want to educate people on missions in general, and we try to stick to the “When Helping Hurts” philosophy. The accomplishment of our tasks is not the objective; the goal is really to build relationships over time.”

When teams come to teach or do work projects, they are not doing them FOR the community, but instead WITH. But what does that really look like?

I watched the short term team teach English classes for 3 days.  You know who the translators were? The group of neighborhood teenage boys who are being discipled by our long term team.  They were just as involved in leading the classes as the Americans were, and were given just as much responsibility.  Relationships have been built with these boys over years of daily interaction. Giving them a role that was essential and important with the short term project did much to further the trust, sense of ownership and value, as well as growth and maturity on their end.

When the team worked with Dave in the local community garden where he is teaching some new agricultural skills, it wasn’t just a bunch of American college kids there digging in the ground. Just as many men, women, and teenagers came from their homes in the surrounding houses to work alongside. Why?  Because the priority is relationship within the local community and the American teams are there to encourage that.  The goal is not to go and do things for people, but to go and know people, learn their needs, and empower them to take care of themselves.  The neighbors are the ones who are going to see the fruit of this garden over time, and having them participate in the care–giving a responsibility and sense of ownership–makes the investment more valuable.

We’ll leave the discussion there for now, and pick it up next week, down in South America with several Brazilian pastors, a few ju jitsu instructors, some graffiti artists, and a whole heap of paintbrushes.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.  When have you seen short term trips and teams be effective?  What are some ways you engage your visitors and American churches in your local ministry?